BERLIN (Reuters) - German jihadists are heading for Syria in increasing numbers, unencumbered by travel formalities and able to integrate quickly into foreign militant groups where Arabic is not needed, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence said.
Hans-Georg Maassen, head of the Bundesamt fuer Verfassungsschutz since 2012 (BfV), said intelligence officers knew of 220 German citizens fighting in Syria, but the actual number could be much higher, and had risen sharply this year.
“For young people wanting to wage jihad, Syria is very interesting,” he said in an interview. “It is easy to get to, you only need an identity card, a flight to Turkey then a domestic flight to the border.”
“Once you are there you can be quickly integrated into brigades, and you can fight alongside people with the same language,” he told Reuters, noting that in the past a lack of language skills particularly among converts had made it difficult for German Islamists to join other wars.
Syria’s 2-1/2-year-old conflict began as a wave of peaceful protests against four decades of rule by the family of President Bashar al-Assad, but it has transformed into a full scale civil war which has cost at least 100,000 lives.
The BfV wrote in its 2012 annual report that the number of radical Islamist Germans heading to Afghanistan or Pakistan had declined sharply as those areas were now seen as too risky due to pressure on militants. Egypt and Syria by contrast were drawing greater numbers, after strong media attention on Syria.
Germans travelling to Pakistan and Afghanistan required a passport, which German authorities can withdraw from people who are considered a potential security hazard. For Turkey, the simple identity card that all Germans carry suffices.
Turkey has a 900-km (560 mile) border with Syria, which foreign fighters have been able to cross undetected in many remote areas. Ankara said last month it would build a wall along part of the frontier.
Assad is from Syria’s minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shi‘ite Islam, which has largely stood behind him. Syria’s Sunni Muslim majority has led the uprising.
Fighters from the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front and the Islamic State for Iraq and the Levant, which is heavily comprised of foreign jihadists, have also joined the conflict.
Last week the head of Britain’s domestic intelligence service MI5 said the number of British Islamists fighting in Syria was in the low hundreds.
Berlin fears young German Islamists could bring knowledge learned in Syria back home and plan attacks on German soil.
Intelligence officials estimate there are 4,500 ultra-conservative Salafists active in Germany, a tiny proportion of Germany’s 4 million Muslims, but which grew from 3,800 in 2011.
Turning to the recent revelations of mass surveillance of German communications by the United States’ National Security Agency, Maassen said the affair highlighted the need for German business to protect itself against industrial espionage.
“German firms have long been a target for foreign spy agencies or competitors because of their reputation.”
German industry, he noted, estimated the damage caused by cyber espionage at an annual 50 billion euros.
“I think the real amount could be much larger. You also have to take into account that some potential contracts might fail because information flows to competitors.”
Maassen threw his support behind a plan by Germany’s conservatives and Social Democrats (SPD), currently in coalition building talks, to make it compulsory for firms in some critical industries to report all cyber attacks.
“We know there were more than 1,000 cyber attacks against the German government last year, but we don’t know how businesses were attacked. For this we need information.”
Edited by Stephen Brown and Ralph Boulton